Below is the latest The Pain -- When Will It End?
Note: Overdue thanks to my friend Isabelle, for encouraging me to make my month of sobriety the subject of 6/14’s cartoon, and for the idea for the “George fucking Laura” panel, and also to my colleague Karl Stevens for inspiring the line, “If it Ain’t Hitler, It Ain’t Fascism!” in last week’s.
The idea for this cartoon came to me in a dream, in which I was a third-party candidate for president. There was a debate among all the third-part candidates, or not really a debate, but rather, in the manner of televised “debates,” a forum for each of the candidates to deliver his or her stump speech. The candidates were speaking in alphabetical order, so my fellow cartoonists Megan Kelso and John Kerschbaum preceded me. (Why all the third-party candidates happened to be cartoonists was not made clear.) The press was there, getting footage of Megan, who happened to be the first speaker, to edit into their bemused and condescending end-of-the-newscast look at some of the also-rans. The crowd was eating up Megan’s speech. She was smart, funny, down-to-earth, engaging. As Megan was speaking, I glanced over my own speech, which, in my cockiness about public speaking, I hadn’t even looked at in some time. As I read it over, I realized, it was pretty old, in fact almost totally obsolete and irrelevant now. For one thing, it occurred to me, my stance on Iraq had changed since I’d written it. Fuck! What to do? I didn’t want to misrepresent my position, but I also thought I probably shouldn’t, like, wing a whole new foreign policy statement on national TV. During Megan’s speech I had to run downstairs to the bathroom (sorry, Megan), and when I tried to get back I found my way blocked by the crowds. I was going to be late for my own speech. People were waiting for me. Also, I suddenly realized, I had forgotten my suit jacket. I must’ve left it in the bathroom. A fiasco.
Anyway, in the dream, my new foreign policy in Iraq was essentially the one presented here: let’s try to win. Reinstate the draft, send another hundred thousand guys over there, lock down the country, and then bring ‘em all home. I mean, it’s either a war or it isn’t, right? Obviously it was trumped up on lies and never needed to happen, and it’s been conducted with the fierce efficiency of a meeting of the English Department, but if we’re not going to just withdraw, well, why not actually fight the war? The Bush administration just keeps muddling along, vaguely hoping that doing the same thing they’ve done so far will somehow produce dramatically different results instead of getting a consistent hundred or so men killed per month indefinitely. Nobody in this administration seems to have any ideas except for staging P.R. stunts—trumpeting the killing of “the head of al Qaeda in Iraq,” who’s already been replaced, or sending the President over there to do one of his pop-in-for-a-couple-hours-then-hightail-it-home photo ops. Just more spin. Currently they’re crowing over the President’s “bounce” in opinion polls--up to a merely dismal 40%, back from the just-above-Mansonian 31%--as if the President’s poll numbers were the strategic aim of the war. Which who knows, maybe they always were. If the Democrats really wanted to do an end run around the Republicans and blindside them in this election, this is the way they’d go: call for a draft, the escalation of the war, nuking Fallujah if necessary, total victory inside a year. The Republicans would be utterly confounded, helpless faced with the unprecedented threat of a hawkish Democratic party. Plus, maybe we’d actually start taking this war seriously if rich people’s kids had to go.
By the way, it’s surprising how easy it is to call for a draft once you are safely over the draft age. The aging hate the young; they’re undeservedly attractive, noisy and stupid and gullible and boring, and our entire culture has to pander to their puerile taste in movies and music and fashion. It is obscenely life-affirming and fun to dispatch thousands of them to an early grave, even if only in fantasy. You can see how warped, sexless old men like Dick Cheney develop an insatiable taste for it.
Yesterday morning I spent some time catching up on Christopher Hitchens’ writing on the Iraq war. A summation of his arguments for the war can be found in this article in The Weekly Standard.
I’ve always admired Hitchens for his integrity and fearlessness; he wrote polemics against Mother Theresa, the clichéd epitome of unassailable virtue, and Bill Clinton, at a time when most liberals were halfheartedly defending him and grateful just to have anyone who called themselves a Democrat in the White House. He accused Henry Kissinger of crimes against humanity and called for his arrest and trial at The Hague. I gave his Letters to a Young Contrarian to my friend Megan back when we were both involved in the antiwar movement (it is recommend to all my readers). He actually thinks his own thoughts, rather than what’s fashionable or acceptable or “correct” to think among his ideological allies. This is a surprisingly rare trait. Since 9/11, he’s taken what appears to his colleagues and admirers to be an unexpected turn to the right, although his arguments are all still, as always, in support of liberal democracy against the forces of autocracy. He argues that a confrontation with Saddam Hussein was inevitable, that he did harbor terrorists and was seeking weapons, and that, if left alone, Iraq would eventually have imploded, been invaded by opportunists from all sides, and become an international humanitarian disaster like Bosnia or Dafur, so that it’s better that we chose the time and place for the confrontation. He despairs that the Bush administration has been unable to make this case for themselves.
Despite my pose of skepticism I am not actually an astute critical thinker. I remember it being said of former Vice President Quayle that he was a “victim of his last conversation.” I am just as much a sucker for the last good book I read, and Hitchens’s is the sharpest, most precise and impassioned political writing since H.L Mencken’s. The counterargument that appeared on Salon.com, by unfortunate contrast, is the sort of plodding, nitpicky, point-by-point rebuttal, complete with condescending explanations of rhetorical fallacies, that you’d scroll right past on an internet message board. I saw a play called Doubt on Broadway this winter in which a nun accused a priest of molesting children, and what you in the audience ended up believing depended, unfairily, on who was the better actor; similarly, I fear I might ultimately be persuaded by the man with the best prose. I remember thinking, after listening to an eloquent defense of the invasion of Iraq by Prime Minister Tony Blair, that if Bush had been half as articulate, or even tried to appeal to my reason instead of to chauvinism and fear, I might actually have supported the war. Like my old dance instructor used to tell us, “One often contradicts an opinion when it is really only the tone in which it has been presented that is unsympathetic.” In truth, the main reason I’ve opposed this war from the moment I heard the first of ominous rustling of propaganda back in spring of 2002 is simply because I don’t trust anything the Bush administration says and reflexively oppose anything they want to do. This instinct is sound in principle; the question is whether it’s right in all cases.
Let me make one thing perfectly clear, as Nixon used to say: I am not some America-hating leftie who’s secretly rooting for the people of the Middle East in their fight against our imperialist aggression. I do think it’s self-defeating to pretend that our enemies are inhuman and incomprehensible rather than people just like ourselves driven to extremist beliefs by desperate circumstances, but this is not the same as saying I have any sympathy for them. It’s true: the people of the Middle East have been impoverished and oppressed for a long time, and America has kept their despotic ruling families in power while occupying their sacred lands, crippling their economies with debt, and corrupting their children with our vulgar and Godless pop culture. However: who cares? That’s supposed to be a good excuse for 9/11? Al Qaeda, the Taliban, the jihadists in Iraq—these people are the same kind of assholes we’re at war with here at home, who firebomb abortion clinics and want to ban contraception and hold up “GOD HATES FAGS” signs at Iraq casualties’ funerals. I find no more to admire in fundamentalist Islam than I do in fundamentalist Christianity—even less, in fact, since even most dingbat Christians in this country have been semicivilized and can’t quite believe in their own delusions wholeheartedly enough anymore to kill anybody. They’re both religions that enshrine the virtues of ignorance, bigotry, and hatred. If it’s to be a war between totalitarian theocracy and pluralist democracy—even democracy in its current corrupt, decadent, corporate plutocratic form—I’m on our side. I like the First Amendment. I like our movies and music. I enjoy the discoveries and benefits of scientific inquiry. I like drinking and fornicating and blaspheming. And I thank God every day that our Western women dress and conduct themselves like whores. Conservatives are correct in saying that there can be no compromise or détente with an enemy that doesn’t believe in tolerance or pluralistic society. (Not that conservatives have themselves historically been vocal proponents of tolerance or pluralism.) But I’d be a lot more enthusiastic in my support of this war if it didn’t look, under the current administration, so much like a war between one faction of totalitarian theocracy and another—what the media likes to call “sectarian violence.”
Still, can I answer Hitchens’ challenge about what we would have done about Iraq in the long term? My “I [Heart] Saddam” cartoon notwithstanding, am I really sorry to see Hussein deposed? Do I want our mission there, however misconceived and ineptly executed it may have been, to fail now? My current policy of Not Caring seems unsustainable, if only because politicians on both sides are going to waste taxpayer’s time and money posturing and making a meaningless racket about it from now until Election Day.
To quote my old dance instructor again, “At times one remains faithful to a cause only because its opponents do not cease to be insipid.” It’s often easiest to decide on which side of a complex debate you belong by just looking around and seeing who’s where. Oh look, over there: all the shitheads and bigots and fat people, plus George Will. Over here: all the cute girls. Case closed. Even if I were to decide that the war in Iraq was in the best interest of this country and civilization in general, could I actually bear to ally myself with the likes of George Bush, Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, the whole Ministry of Propaganda of professional liars and slanderers and apologists for torture, the homicidal Jesus freaks and NASCAR rednecks who think Saddam was behind 9/11 and complacent fatassed suburban Republicans driving Hummers with flag decals, all those angry, smug, priggish, sneering people of the right, the heartless and sexless and humorless, so self-righteous and contemptuous of democracy and complacent about killing? Just writing down the thought makes me kind of gag.
Nah. I think not. But it does me good to recognize some validity in my opponents’ arguments, and to be given pause to reconsider my own opinion. Everybody on all sides of the American dialogue has become too strident and sure of themselves, isolated inside their own ideological echo chambers, dismissing anyone who disagrees as an idiot or a traitor. It is a characteristic failing of the Bush administration that they would rather cling desperately to their bad ideas at the expense of thousands of lives and billions of dollars rather than admit to error. Let’s make sure we don’t share it. H.L. Mencken once described the kind of man he admired in public life: “when he fights he fights in the manner of a gentleman fighting a duel, not in that of a longshoreman cleaning out a waterfront saloon. That is to say, he carefully guards his amour prope by assuming that his opponent is as decent a man as he is, and just as honest—and perhaps, after all, right.”